The Brownie.

This is a fish story. A story about fishing. Most fishing stories have embellishments and mine is probably no exception.

I love sport fishing. I love running deep rigs for ling cod and rockfish on the ocean. I love hunting sneaky-ass bass with crank bait on farm ponds in Iowa. But what I love most is fly fishing on a river for trout.

For me, fly fishing is the most zen-like pursuit I know. Time seems to evaporate and I feel very calm and happy when I’m fly fishing. And to tell you the truth, given how involved and complicated the actual act of fly fishing is, I don’t know why I feel this way. The gear is antiquated, the river is moving dangerously fast, you stand in the boat and the boat is often bouncing all over the place while you’re trying to cast. It’s hard to focus on all that’s going on. Plus there’s usually at least one other person in the boat trying to find his “zen” place, too. It’s controlled chaos at it’s best.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not very good at fly fishing. I have poor casting technique, sketchy rod handling skills and I’m just as likely to gig my fishing partner with a hook as I am a fish.

One more thing, fly fishing is an expensive pursuit. A mid-level fly rod and reel outfit will set you back five bills. Smart anglers hire professional guides who bring the right gear for you to use and know where the fish are. The guide also provides the boat, lunch and expertise so that your day is joyful. Joyfulness is expensive. And worth it. Trust me.

I went fly fishing this week on the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, Montana, with my mentor and friend, Joe Phelps. It’s been ten years since I last fished with Joe and, seeing as I hooked him three times (thankfully with a barbless hook), I can understand if he had concerns about climbing into the boat with me. Our guide, Max, works out of Anglers West, one of the top outfitters in Paradise Valley. Max, who is all of 23, works Paradise Valley in our summer months and guides in Chile in their summer months (December though March).

The predominant trout species in the Yellowstone is the Cutthroat, so called because they have beautiful crimson-colored “cut” marks next to the gills. The river is also home to Rainbows — also beautiful — and Montana Whitefish (less beautiful, but fighters), but the most elusive and rare trout on the Yellowstone is the Brown trout.

Trout are wily, picky and arrogant fish. They want to play with you. Tease you. Refuse you. Then fight you when they strike. Trout are badass. Brown trout are the badass-est trout on the river. And the hardest to catch.

When I fished the Yellowstone ten years ago, everyone in our party nailed all three of these beautiful trout — Cuttys, ‘Bows and Brownies — except me. I did not land a Brownie, and it’s been bugging me ever since. In fact, I’ve fished other rivers and streams that are home to Brown trout and, again, failed to land one. Heck, my son, Daniel, when he was 11, waved a Brownie he’d caught on Bishop Creek right in my face.

I made mention of this to Joe and Max, as we were beginning our day. Both looked at me with that “oh, okay, that’s nice” look that folks do when they’re really thinking about something else.

As soon as we were headed downriver in the boat, the fish started to hit. One Rainbow  after another. Then I got a Whitefish. Then more ‘Bows. Then lunch. Time flies, remember? No Brownies.

The weather was perfect, albeit a little windy. My technique was, um, lacking. Max, ever the professional, was very patient and took advantage of me telling him to just bark commands at me, rather than make gentle suggestions.

“Closer to the bank!”


“Mend! Mend! Mend! ”

“Small mend!”

NO! Don’t Mega-Mend!”

“Mend downriver!”


I didn’t mind the curt instructions. I was in “The Zone.” I was just happy to be alive and in this place and at this time. Man, it was fly fishing heaven. But still no Brownies.

Then it happened. It was a bump, a refusal, then a hard strike. Different than a ‘Bow. I saw the Brownie almost immediately, the unusual light brown, almost golden, color slapping in the water and pulling on my line. This Brownie was big (relatively speaking for a trout) and was in the fight of his life. I had to land this fish.

Many times a trout will strike and you think you’ve got him. Then he spits out the fly, flips you an imaginary bird and swims away laughing at you. Other times, you’ll get him right up to the boat and ready for the net. Then you lose focus for just a second or two, lower your rod or release line tension… and he’s gone. Guides call that “Catch and early release.” Some guides, I’m sure, roll their eyes at the noob when this happens.

Not this time.

I did everything right… for a change. I held my rod up straight and behind my shoulder. I stripped the line, rather than reel it in like a traditional spin casting rig, which causes you to lower the rod, slacken the line, and get the bird from a fish’s tail as he swims away. I got the Brownie next to the boat and Max got him in the net.

At the same time, Joe was landing another Rainbow, so we had a busy boat. This happened three times that day — me and Joe landing fish at the same time — making Max work to keep the boat heading downriver, keep us from tangling rods and lines, net and release two fish, then listen to his clients spew verbal high-fives until the next fish hit.

Joe and I lost count of the total number of fish caught that day, or who caught the most, or the biggest (it was me). It didn’t matter. It was a perfect day.

I got my Brownie.

BrownieMy Brownie. Finally. Notice the color difference? JP is green with envy.

JP working the river and the result — a beautiful Rainbow (but no Brownies for him that day).

FlyagraThis product is called “Fly-Agra.” It’s designed to add flotation to your fly to, uh, help keep it up longer. The label actually says “Not for human consumption.”

Young DublinersThe Young Dubliners were playing at Pine Creek Lodge in Paradise Valley on an outdoor stage surrounded by streams, mountains and dancing fans. Great show!

We rode through Yellowstone along the northeast route and over the famous Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet). On the way down, I noticed the rear tire wearing through a thousand miles sooner than planned. We limped into Red Lodge, Montana, to Bonedaddy’s Custom Cycles and got a new rear shoe for Orca. Of course, I had sent a set of tires ahead to our final Chapter Two stop in Iowa and have service scheduled for next week. “Wanna make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”

Devils TowerDevil’s Tower in Wyoming. Remember this place from the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind?” Did you just make the audio sound and hand gesture of “bee, boo, bah, beep” from the film? Yes, you did.

RushmoreMt. Rushmore in South Dakota. I just expected it to be, you know, bigger.

Adventure awaits! (My new sign off, courtesy of Dee)


Chapter Two: Big. Very Big.

Greetings from Missoula, Montana — Big Sky Country. Whenever I travel to Montana, I remember why they call it Big Sky Country. Big mountains. Big valleys. Big expanses. Everywhere. I’ll tell you more about how we got to the Big Sky Country in a moment, but I want to start this post with a story. A big story.

We arrived in Seattle late Friday night to begin Chapter Two of the Epic Ride. Our bike, “Orca,” was kept in the good care of Dee’s cousin Shawn, who, smartly, put a few miles on her to “keep ‘er sharp and ready.”

Our plan was to hit the road Sunday and head eastward to Coeur d’Alene (honestly, I’m a little tired of trying to remember how to spell the name of that city). That gave us Saturday to do a some local touring of Seattle.

I’m starting to love the Pacific Northwest. It’s lush and green, a departure from the parched, drought-scarred landscapes of LA. Shawn lives in Woodinville, which is north of the city. Woodinville is almost anti-urban, with greenbelts, lakes and bike paths everywhere. Really beautiful.

We stopped first at Snoqualmie Falls, then Dee indulged my love of all things airplane with a tour of the Boeing Museum of Flight. This is a world-class aviation museum, not to be missed if you’re an aviation and space enthusiast like me. I can easily name 90 percent of the aircraft on display at almost any museum, which puts me somewhere between fascinating, if you’re an aviation nerd, and an annoying smartypants if all you really want to do is read the placard that tells you the history of the bird in front of you without me yammering in your ear about development histories and operational envelopes.

So here’s my Big Story.

One of the first aircraft you’ll see on display when you enter the museum is a still-flying B-17G “Flying Fortress.” The B-17 is one of the most iconic aircraft from the World War II flight era (1936-1946), along with the P-51 “Mustang” fighter. This particular B-17 has been restored to near-perfect detail and is, frankly, both beautiful and frightening, when you consider that its primary mission was to kill people, which it did quite well.

As Dee and I walked around the B-17, we noticed a slightly-built older gentleman standing in front of the aircraft. He was wearing a leather flight jacket, the twin bars of an Army Air Corps captain on the collar, plus campaign ribbons and the coveted gold wings of a military aviator above his heart. He was also wearing a docent badge and was on duty to help explain the history of this fearsome fighting machine.

His name was Dick and, as we learned, Dick was 93-years-old and piloted a B-17 on bombing runs over Germany. He is the museum’s only currently living docent to have actually piloted a B-17 in combat.

Wow. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I have serious hero-envy of even modern day airline pilots. Don’t get me started on military aviators, let alone one who flew in World War II. In a B-17! I mean, really, wow!

Believe it or not, I know when to talk and when to listen. This was the listening time.

Dick told us his story of being 19, living in Bakersfield, California, and begging his mother every day to let him join the Air Corps and fight, only to be told no repeatedly. She was a single parent and he was her only son. Dick told us he finally convinced her to sign off on the application by saying, “Look, Mom, I’m 135 pounds and five-foot-seven. How long do you think I’ll last in the infantry?”

Two years later, Dick was a 21-year-old lieutenant flying in the aircraft commander’s seat in a B-17F over Nazi Germany, in charge of a crew of 10, dropping bombs on targets and watching many of his friends drop out of the sky in burning aircraft, some never to return.

When Dick was finished telling us about his time flying the B-17, I shook his hand and thanked him, along with his buddies, for saving the world. I couldn’t be more serious about that “saving the world” thing and, someday, I’ll tell you about my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s contributions to saving the world, too.

We owe this “greatest generation” everything. Now most of them are gone, with more passing everyday.

As we walked away, I stopped and watched Dick standing there, alone, looking at the bird. And I couldn’t resist it. I told Dee to hang on and that I had one more question for Dick.

I walked back up and he looked at me earnestly, like a good decent does, probably thinking I wanted to know yet another mechanical aspect of flying the -17, but that wasn’t it.

I said, “Sir, I do have one more question, but I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of my wife.”

He smiled, and leaned toward me, as if already knowing what I was going to ask (and he probably did).

“At age 21, you and nine other scared kids climbed into this thing, full of fuel and bombs, flew through flak-filled skies and won the war. Can you tell me, sir, just exactly how big are your balls?”

He busted up laughing at that. We both did. He just slowly nodded his head, knowing he had lived a life in which he would never have to prove anything to anyone. Ever.

Big indeed.

B17-2The magnificent B-17G on display at the Boeing Museum of Flight. My new buddy, Dick, is the shorter of the two men in the photo. I’m amazed all of his parts fit in the photo.

Snoqualmie FallsSnoqualmie Falls near Seattle. This is in the summer when the water level is down. Imagine it in April.

Drone signSign of the Times #1: Snoqualmie Falls. I’ll bet they added this sign AFTER the “incident.”

Oysters at Matts SEAMy pre-birthday dinner at Matt’s Rotisserie in Redmond, WA. No one just “likes” oysters. You either love ’em or hate ’em. Ditto liver, or haggis.

Firewood signSign of the Times #2. It’s important to follow instructions. Saw this somewhere between Seattle and Coeur d’Alene. I’m really tired of spell-checking Couer… Core… dammit… Coeur d’Alene!

Aunt DonnaBreakfast with Aunt Donna and Uncle Schu (Earle) at Frankin’s Hoagie in Coeur d’Alene. Great breakfast menu. Donna’s not really my aunt. She’s actually Bird’s aunt, but I don’t have any living aunts, so I’m claiming Aunt Donna. So there. Donna and Earle “escaped” LA for CDA (I give up) over 20 years ago and never looked back. Smart folks.

Hwy 97Highway 97 between St. Maries, Idaho and St. Regis, Montana. 120 miles of twisting near-perfect-motorcycling-road-bliss along the St. Joe River, followed by…

Hwy 97 dirt road17 miles of downhill twisting gravel-and-dirt-motorcycling-not-so-blissful road into St. Regis, Montana. Some parts of me felt very small during this portion of the ride.

Travel safe. And often.